By the 17th century, furbearers were becoming scarce in Europe. Luxury furs still flowed from parts of Russia, but the opening of North America to the fur trade was timely. Depletion of many Northern European fur stocks coincided with the rise of a new fashion in beaver for felt hats. North America had plenty of beaver, and many English and French adventurers were eager to seek the "soft gold." Most northern furs were traded through the Hudson's Bay Company, chartered in 1670, or the North West Company until their merger in 1821. Unlike in many areas of what is now the United States, fur traders to Canada's North were not rapidly followed by settlers. But traders traveled far into the continent in search of fur, and missionaries followed. They brought diseases that decimated aboriginal populations, and they had one item to trade that changed everything—guns.
In the early years of European trade in the Subarctic, Cree and Chipewayans often took on the role of middlemen between traders and native trappers. Tribes competed fiercely for this role in order to control the trade and obtain more guns than rival groups. Cree restricted trade routes around Hudson Bay and are thought to have migrated and expanded their territories far west from Hudson Bay to the prairies, where some became classic Plains bison hunters. Chipewayan caribou hunters pursued moose as they expanded into new territories. Existing prairie tribes that were not interested in giving up hunting buffalo to become trappers adjusted their economy to the trade as well. Pemmican, the mixture of dried buffalo meat, fat, and berries, which was the staple of the fur trade, was produced in vast quantities to feed the trappers and traders expanding westward.
Tribal economies changed in significant ways for many northern peoples. There is controversy among historians over just how much northern hunters became reliant on trade and trading posts. As Inuit, Dene, and Cree peoples included fur trading more often in their seasonal rounds, some individuals became dependent on trading posts. Epidemics and the resultant massive population declines attracted individuals more toward posts. This certainly increased with intermarriage of natives and traders, pressure by traders on trappers to devote more time to trapping and less to hunting, and the introduction of credit. Missionaries also encouraged settlement near trading posts. Hunting territories, which prior to this period were often quite fluid and dependent on following animal migrations, became more localized and individualized.
Steel traps introduced early in the 19th century greatly increased the efficiency of beaver hunting. This was soon followed by a bitter trade war between the North West and Hudson's Bay companies. The corporate battles did great harm to their indigenous partners; regular introduction of alcohol into the trading process increased company profits and put indigenous people at a disadvantage both in trade and in their abilities to subsist as they had on the land. The deleterious effects of alcohol on people who chose to stay around trading posts and missed their annual hunting rounds are well documented; how much of the indigenous populations fell into this trap has probably been exaggerated. The 1821 merger of the rival companies mellowed trading tactics, but not their fervor to trade furs. In 1841-1842, conservation restrictions were placed on the catch of beaver. The fashion craze of 200 years' duration for beaver hats fizzled by 1850.
In Canada's North of 1870, muskrat, beaver, and marten made up 95% of pelts taken (Ray, 1990: 20). Beaver stocks were low, and although muskrats made up the bulk of furs captured, these smaller, less valuable animals were prone to population crashes. Centuries of heavy exploitation of furs led to declines in many species across the North by the late 19th century. From 1870 to 1911, increasing industrialization raised the demand for luxury furs. Fur farming emerged in the 1890s as an alternative to wild harvest, particularly for mink, sable, and fox. Farmed furs and the substitution of domestic furs such as dyed rabbit brought wild fur prices down. In the north, wool and cotton clothing became widely available early in the century, and trapping declined. During the 1920s, the highest production of furs came from the Soviet Union (Ray, 1990: 135). Production picked up somewhat in North America during the cash-poor depression, but prices were low. Meanwhile, the introduction of rifles, outboard motors, and other new technology was raising the cost of both trapping and subsistence hunting. When prices were on the upswing, trapping complemented by hunting provided an excellent income to northern trappers.
Colonization played out differently in the Russian Far East and Alaska. By the mid-18th century, Russian traders had extended their interests across the Pacific. Luxurious sea otter pelts, highly prized in China, were their main object. Russians enslaved hunters of the Aleutian Islands (Ungangan) and Kodiak Island (Alutiit) to hunt sea otters in the Commander Islands, along the coast of Alaska and as far south as Fort Ross, California. Others went North to hunt fur seals in the Pribilof Islands. Hunters were forced to leave their homes for long periods of time, leaving families behind without hunters. (The Russians held families hostage to ensure compliance by the hunters.) They also required the indigenous people to produce dried salmon, "Indian rice" (rhizomes of the chocolate lily, Fritillaria cam-schatcensis), and other foods to provision the trade.
These pressures, along with decimation of the population by smallpox, brought about the abandonment of many small and seasonal settlements. Survivors consolidated their communities, usually in areas where fish and other resources were most plentiful.
One hundred years after Russian hunters and traders first appeared, British and American fur interests had extended north up the Pacific Coast into Southeastern Alaska. Americans took control of the fur seal trade in 1867 when the United States bought Alaska. Sea otter were already fairly well depleted by that time.
Commercial sealing was under way not only in Alaska, but along coasts of the White and Baltic Seas, the North Pacific, and the eastern shores of Canada, starting in the mid-1700s. Northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) and harp seals (Phoca groen-landica) were hunted nearly to extinction in the Baltic and Northeast Atlantic; by 1800, the seal fishery in the northwest Atlantic had become an industrial venture (Wenzel, 1991). Along the Arctic coast of Canada, Inuit traded sealskin clothing and meat with whalers and explorers as opportunity allowed. The seal fishery there only reached commercial proportions after 1870, following the depletion of baleen whales. Until around 1920, when petroleum substitutes for whale and seal oil were widely adopted, sealskins were sold with the blubber on, to be rendered for their oil. Although this trade produced large numbers of skins, reportedly 3700 annually for Cumberland Sound alone between 1883 and 1903, Arctic seal populations remained healthy (Wenzel, 1991: 44).
Inuit continued to trade some sealskins throughout the early 1900s, but the market for Arctic fox was more lucrative. At Clyde River, Inuit traded skins of white and blue (Arctic) fox, polar bear, ermine, wolves, caribou, and Arctic hare. Unlike Subarctic hunters, Inuit relied on nonmigratory species (seals). Because this food supply remained steady and traders were more migratory, Inuit did not come to rely on trade as much as had natives further south. The incentive to trap was dulled by the unreliable supply of trade goods, and by the 1950s wage labor supplied some of the needed cash to communities. Earnings from the fur trade still amounted to little compared to ammunition and other costs for subsistence activities. This changed after 1961, when a new tanning process for sealskin increased demand by the industry. Prices went from $3.50 per pelt to $14 by 1966 (Wenzel, 1991: 51), enabling hunters to buy snowmobiles and greatly increasing the mobility of Inuit from settlements.
In 1967, following reports of the inhumane slaughter of baby harp seals in the commercial fishery, animal rights groups launched a campaign to "Save the Seals." Demand for all types of furs plummeted, along with prices. The US Marine Mammal Protection Act of
1972, a campaign by Greenpeace in 1977 that included condemnation of Inuit sealing, and a ban in 1983 by the European Economic Community on harp and hooded seal imports further damaged the market for sealskins. Cash income for Inuit on Baffin Island fell 85% (Wenzel, 1991: 54). Other fur markets were also badly affected. Prices recovered somewhat in 1979 following a program by the Canadian Government to counter the animal rights movement. This sealskin trade really benefited Inuit, because a good trade in sealskins meant that large amounts of traditional food were also being harvested for the community. From $23 per skin in 1980, prices on Baffin Island fell to $7 a pelt in 1985 (Wenzel, 1991: 125). Twenty-three dollars would cover expenses for fuel and ammunition for a full day of subsistence harvest activities. Seven dollars barely covered the cost of bullets to kill a seal.
Antisealing and antifur lobbies are criticized in the North for having a double standard; condemning hunters for harvesting "luxury" furs when fur has been the only "cash crop" available for northerners to export. The ban against this "luxury" product reduced cash income from fur in the 1980s from $450 down to around $100 for Inuit hunters (Lynge, 1992: 31). Meanwhile, southern organizers of this campaign are seen by northerners as enjoying many modern conveniences and luxuries that are unavailable to northern trappers and hunters. The bitterness of this irony was intensified by the huge donations that animal rights groups collected during their antisealing campaigns: the International Fund for Animal Welfare raised $6 million, Greenpeace USA $5 million, and other groups additional millions (Lynge, 1992: 31). The World Wildlife Fund and the UNEP realized that these campaigns, which were supposed to exempt Inuit and Greenlandic hunters, had a devastating effect on Arctic lifestyles. But the damage against fur markets had already been done.
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